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Officials from Racine County and the Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce plan to create a task force that will look at how to reopen local businesses after being shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The group plans to study best practices in reopening businesses in the safest possible way so that the virus doesn’t spread. They also want to reduce uncertainty for local businesses, consumers, workers, and the general public, according to a press release by Racine County.

“We know businesses and nonprofits face a difficult and challenging phase as they look toward opening back up. We want to support them and learn how best to position them, so they are ready to hit the ground running safely, and we can continue to protect public health in Racine County,” said Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave.

RAMAC president Matt Montemuro said it was important that businesses reopen efficiently and safely but also support the COVID-19 response.

“We look forward to helping our great local businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak get back on their feet,” Montemurro said.

Why Evers ordered nonessential businesses to close

Governor Tony Evers issued a Safer at Home order in March to help slow the spread of the virus. The order closed nonessential businesses until April 24.

Somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of adults could contract the virus, and about a fifth of the people who get COVID-19 could need to be hospitalized, according to officials at the Harvard Global Health Institute.

As a result, health officials have voiced concerns that the spread of the virus could mean more significant numbers of people will need medical care. If that happens, hospitals will not be able to deal with a higher volume of patient care. The term flattening the curve refers to fewer people contracting the virus and having less of an impact on the state’s healthcare system.

The task force — comprised of businesses throughout Racine County, nonprofits, public health, and governmental entities — will present recommendations to companies and nonprofits. But those recommendations will also be released to the general public.

“The timing is obviously somewhat dependent on the Governor’s Safer at Home order and whether that gets extended. But the idea is that we want to have a plan for when that order expires and nonessential businesses are allowed to reopen,” said Mark Schaaf, spokesman for Racine County.

Businesses ask Evers to start the process of reopening state

About 600,000 Wisconsin residents claimed unemployment after Wisconsin’s nonessential businesses were closed by the Safer at Home order. Last week, several business groups asked Evers to “provide certainty to employers and their employees.”

According to a press release by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, they underscored the need for Evers to begin the process of restarting the economy by April 24.

“Restarting our economy will not happen overnight, and it likely will not be all at once,” said Kurt Bauer, WMC President, and CEO. “That is why the business community and Gov. Evers need to work together on a plan that determines what industries and what areas of Wisconsin can open safely, along with a timeline.”

The number of known cases has not grown exponentially or followed predictive models, which forecasted that Wisconsin would see 22,000 cases of COVID-19 by April 8, and 440 and 1,500 deaths. The models were based on Wisconsin’s rate of doubling its cases about 3.4 days. That has slowed to 12 days in recent weeks. State officials credit physical distancing for that trend.

Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state, but mapping out the exact number of cases has been difficult. 

“One hundred cases are much better than 1,000 cases that are being seen in other states. But it’s probably not low enough for us to feel confident that there’s not a fair amount of community spread in multiple areas of the state,” he said.

Because of the limited amount of testing being done, Westergaard believes the state is only capturing about 10 to 20 percent of the actual cases.

Evers not comfortable with lifting Safe at Home order until other measures in place

To lift the Safer at Home order, state and local health departments need to operate differently. Health officials will need to be able to zero in on identifying and containing those individuals who have the virus quickly, Evers said.

State and local health officials are also working on increasing the number of self-isolation sites, increase funding for case tracing, and acquiring more protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Some hospitals in Wisconsin continue to ration personal protective equipment. About 16 percent of the 3,721 COVID-19 positive cases are healthcare workers. According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, 17 of 29 hospitals in southeastern Wisconsin have a seven-day or less supply of gowns, and 15 hospitals have a seven-day or fewer supply goggles.

“What it tells us is, we have a number of acutely ill patients that have COVID-19 that is — at this moment — not straining our hospital capacity,” he said. “But it also, unfortunately, tells us that there is a sustained transmission in the community. That means there’s a large number of people potentially that are infectious.”

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.